(March 18, 2020)
“What’s it like? Having a place?
“Oh, it’s huge. It’s huge. Like, you can lock the door you can keep your belongings, you don’t have to carry them on you. You can cook, you know, that’s the biggest thing.”
As told by Ezra, a formerly homeless Edmonton man told CBC reporter, Nick Burton, in February.
Homelessness in Canada emerged in its modern-day iteration in the 1980s following a “massive divestment in affordable housing,” according to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH).
With the advent of the “supply-side” economic policies in the 1980s advocated by Milton Friedman and other free market economists, western governments reduced government spending, lowered taxes and cut regulation.The idea was that the benefits of supply-side economics would ‘trickle down’ to everyone in the form of lower prices and higher employment, as Binyamin Appelbaum, a lead business writer for the New York Times wrote last year in his comprehensive book The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society.
Thirty-five years later, we are looking at the result. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 produced by CAEH shows a clear picture of homelessness in Canada:
- 35,000 Canadians are homeless on a given night
- 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a given year
- 27% of homeless Canadians are women
- 19% are youth
- 24% are older adults or senior
“For decades, homelessness in our country has followed a relentless and lethal trajectory, increasing steadily year after year,” wrote Tim Richter, the founder and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, who also helped shape the current response to homelessness in Canada in a Globe and Mail op-ed in December 2019.
“Today, we estimate homelessness afflicts more than 235,000 Canadians a year, 35,000 every night, and costs more than $7-billion a year, killing hundreds and reducing life expectancy for thousands more – easily as bad or worse, than the worst natural disasters in Canadian history.”
In 2016, the federal budget committed $2.3 billion in a Homeless Partnering Strategy (HPS). Then in 2018, the government created a $55 billion, 10-year National Housing Strategy that focuses on the community housing sector, non-profit and co-operative housing providers. One priority is helping vulnerable populations, such as women and children fleeing violence, seniors and Indigenous people.
But there are bright spots, says Richter.
“A small but growing number of communities, led by the city of Edmonton, are treating homelessness like the disaster it is and are showing that with a sense of urgency and a focused effort, homelessness can be reduced.
“In less than nine years, Edmonton has reduced overall homelessness by 43 per cent and is projecting that it will eliminate chronic homelessness by 2022. It’s done so after an approach that mirrors local disaster response plans.”
Homeward Trust Edmonton, supported by three levels of government, has developed innovative approaches to solving the housing crisis in their city.
In 2019, they created a pilot program dedicated to reaching people sleeping outdoors, to directly target street homelessness. As a result, they have been able to achieve a 30% reduction in the number of people sleeping rough since September 1, 2018. This is part of a project for the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH), a global movement to end street homelessness, of which Edmonton is one of 10 Vanguard cities around the world.
Housing First says its approach has “seen years of success across North America and beyond … rooted in the idea that someone who is homeless needs a safe, stable place to live before they can work on whatever issues led them to become homeless in the first place.”
“Housing First is exactly what it says it’s about housing first,” says Trent, a Housing First Outreach worker. “It’s not putting any stipulations on somebody’s housing. We don’t require people to get sober to get housing. We just want to help people get off the street to get into safe places.”
“Because not everybody is in the same place. You know, not everybody that lives in a house doesn’t drink every day. You know, like, maybe because they never experienced homelessness. That doesn’t mean that, you know, they don’t drink every day. They don’t have a drinking problem, but they’re able to maintain their housing. We’re worried about helping people maintain housing. We’re not here to judge them.”
Like everyone else, people working on homelessness issues are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among Canada’s homeless population.
Canadian Network for the Health and Housing (CNH3), which launched in October 2019, is collecting resources to help homelessness services prepare to respond to a coronavirus outbreak.
“There are no confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus among the population of people experiencing homelessness,” it says, “CNH3 will be working closely with public health experts and the Public Health Agency of Canada to develop resources and tools for homeless services.”
CNH3 says it’s leveraging the platform of healthcare professionals to help boost the voice of people experiencing homelessness and the homeless sector.
“Unlike most disasters, mass homelessness in Canada today was created by federal policy decisions in the 1980s and 90s,” concludes Richter. “Today, the federal government has returned to housing leadership with the National Housing Strategy. That strategy’s new homelessness plan, Reaching Home, mirrors Edmonton’s approach and will give communities across Canada the tools and strategies to tackle the crisis. Importantly, the National Housing Strategy begins to reinvest in housing – but more is needed, and much more urgently, than is currently planned.”